Immigrants take part in a U.S. naturalization ceremony in New York. | John Moore~Getty Images
Updated: May 20, 2013 7:50PM
Everyone agrees our nation’s immigration system is broken, but a polarized Washington has been unable to do a thing about it.
Now, finally, there’s a chance, and Congress must grab it.
Eight senators — four Republicans and four Democrats — have done the difficult work of hashing out an agreement that both sides could live with. The framework they unveiled on Thursday is imperfect, and undoubtedly it will evolve as it works its way through the legislative process, but procedural delays can’t be allowed to kill it.
Our nation’s inadequate immigration rules have been frozen in time for more than a quarter-century, with no significant attempts at reform since 2007, unless you count Mitt Romney’s call for people who are here illegally to “self-deport.”
The deal hammered out by the “Gang of Eight” senators, on which hearings are to begin Friday, would create new visa programs for low- and high-skilled workers; tighten border security; require employers to check the legal status of all workers, and set up a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who arrived here illegally before Dec. 31, 2011, and who don’t have felonies or more than three misdemeanors.
The 844-page bill also would shift the focus of who can come here from those who have family ties to those who have skills and job opportunities. But the bill would give people who have been deported a chance to rejoin spouses or children here. Agricultural workers could get a new type of legal ID: a blue card. And in one of the most important reforms, undocumented young people brought in by parents would get a five-year path to citizenship.
Nobody in Washington sounded exactly elated as the details of the proposal became public. Some Democrats objected to measures they thought were overly punitive, such as a penalty of up to $500 and other costs, expenses that don’t strike us as overly burdensome. Some Republicans complained the bill is just a soft-headed amnesty program — the criticism that sank the 2007 reform.
But all that complaining is a good sign. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said, “This has something for everybody to hate.” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of objections from the liberal side, “Let me just tell you something. This was the price that Democrats had to pay to make this a bipartisan bill. And it’s not too high a price.”
This bill won’t get through Congress without a major fight. Even if the Senate approves it, the House could come up with its own immigration overhaul, as it is now considering, or greatly rework the Senate bill. Whatever emerges from the House is sure to be significantly different.
But that means there also will be chances to improve the bill. For example, its requirement that the legalization process for undocumented immigrants couldn’t begin until at least 90 percent of immigrants attempting to sneak across the border are being turned back — how realistic is that? — could make the whole reform effort moot. We’d like to see a less rigid and arbitrary trigger for the legalization process to kick in.
That said, the greater danger would be for this historic measure to get bogged down in debate. Opponents would love to delay it to death.
The United States can’t wait another 25 years or even another six to get this done.
As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Thursday, this is a chance to bring order out of chaos.